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Creative Solutions to Save Vital Arizona River

In Sandra Postel’s new book ‘Replenish,’ she writes about an initiative that helped inspire farmers to put more water back in Arizona’s Verde River and how downstream users in Phoenix are also getting involved.

Written by Sandra Postel Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
Beaver Creek in the Verde Valley, Arizona, joins the Verde River near Camp Verde, Arizona.Independent Picture Service/UIG via Getty Images

The signature mantra of water law in the western United States – “use it or lose it” – is ingrained in just about every farmer’s brain. The phrase stems from state laws that say if a water right is not put to beneficial use the state can take it back. The traditional thinking, said Kevin Hauser, a farmer who has lived in the Verde valley of central Arizona for nearly half a century, “is divert all you can and use all you can.”

So, many irrigators in the Verde valley were understandably suspicious when a hydrologist from Oregon named Kim Schonek arrived in 2008, tasked by the Nature Conservancy (TNC) to protect the Verde River and its rich diversity of plants and animals. Rumors circulated around the community that TNC was out to get their water and put it back in the river.

Flowing 195 miles from spring-fed headwaters north of Prescott, Arizona, south to its confluence with the Salt River near Phoenix, the Verde joins the Upper Gila and the San Pedro as the crown jewels of rivers in the Southwest. Even as it supplies the Ari­zona capital with drinking water, the Verde supports 92 species of mam­mals – including bobcat, gray fox, muskrat and river otter – as well as populations of razorback sucker and other native fishes that are dwin­dling throughout the Colorado river system. It is also an avian paradise. Some 221 bird species nest, breed or feed in the Verde’s riparian forests of Fremont cottonwoods and Goodding willows. As on the Upper Gila and San Pedro, these forests provide a critical flyway and nesting spot for the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and numerous other migratory birds. Breeding bird densities in the Verde’s riparian corridor are among the highest ever recorded in North America.

Not surprisingly, TNC tagged the Verde as an “ecological hotspot” – an environment rich in species diversity but at risk of losing much of it. Nearly one-third of the Verde’s fish assemblage is federally listed as endangered or threatened. In 2008, TNC scientists began a planning process to assess threats to the river. The group identified irrigation diversions as a major problem, Schonek said. “And no one was working on it.”

Today, most farmers in the Verde valley irrigate the way their predecessors did in the 1860s. They build a simple earthen embankment in the river channel to divert flow into an irrigation ditch. Laterals off of the main ditches bring water to individual farms and properties. The system runs entirely by gravity. Seven main ditches, each managed separately by a board and “ditch boss,” run through the valley. The ditch farthest downstream is the Diamond S, a 5-mile-long conveyor of water to landowners collectively irrigating about 400 acres of crops and landscaping. During the summer irrigation season, the ditches would at times divert the Verde’s entire flow. Most of the water not consumed by crops and vegetation would eventually make its way back to the river downstream, but for that several-mile stretch downstream of the Diamond S diversion, the Verde was severely depleted, if not completely dry.Schonek knew her task would not be easy. Soon after she arrived in the valley, she began talking to the ditch boss, Frank Geminden, and other irrigators to learn how the ditch system worked. The fact that there was water at the end of the ditch meant that the Diamond S irri­gators didn’t need the amount they were taking out of the river. They took it because that was the easiest way to ensure that everyone on the ditch got water – and better to appear to use it than risk losing it. After absorbing the situation, Schonek designed a strategy that would benefit the river, the irrigators and the broader community of Camp Verde, a town of some 11,000 residents located along the river.

Her solution was to provide incentives for the irrigators to divert less water, along with a technology – solar-powered automated headgates – that enabled them to do so. The idea was for the ditch system to deliver only what the users actually needed so as to leave more flow in the river. But first, Schonek had to build trust.

“I’m sure I met Kim over a beer,” said Steve Goetting, a businessman, backyard pecan farmer and chair of the Camp Verde Chamber of Com­merce. In addition to long talks over local brews, Schonek organized a field trip. In December 2010, she took eight Verde valley irrigators, including Goetting, down to the Phoenix area to see some automated headgates in action. “I was completely enamored with them,” Goetting recalled. She wanted to know, “What do we need to do to get these? How do we start?”

For Goetting, the river was more than a source of irrigation water for his pecan trees: it was the lifeblood of the local economy. He owned the Horn, a brewery and restaurant that served delicious pies made with his pecans. As chair of the chamber of commerce he viewed a healthier Verde River as a key to the valley’s future. “The name of this town is Camp Verde,” he said. “It would not do well as Camp Brown.”

As Goetting’s enthusiasm spread to the rest of the ditch board and then to the larger community, the initial discomfort with the idea of giving some water back to the river eased up. “This project sprang out of that field trip,” Schonek said.

For the plan to succeed, it needed the right flow targets and incen­tives to meet them. Schonek and her TNC colleagues set a “minimum flow target” – the lowest the river should ever flow in the valley – of 30 cubic feet per second by 2020. That was about 43 percent of the histori­cal low, but sufficient to meet key ecological and social goals. Schonek presented the Diamond S irrigators with a “diversion reduction agree­ment” that said TNC would pay for the automated headgate if they reduced their diversions by the agreed-upon amount.

The irrigators signed on in 2013. That year, they met the goal of leav­ing 5 cubic feet per second of flow in the river during the irrigation sea­son, which runs from May 15 to September 15. In dry summer periods, that additional 5 cubic feet per second can nearly double the Verde’s flow. TNC installed the automated headgate, which was ready to go for the next season. Once again, the irrigators met the flow target, and they used their financial reward to again make some upgrades. In this way, their water savings have grown year after year – and the river has gotten increasingly more flow. By 2016, the river received an additional 3,103 acre-feet during the irrigation season, more than double what it received in 2013.

Schonek acted strategically in starting with the Diamond S, the most downstream diversion in the valley. Her plan is to gradually upgrade ditch systems one at a time, moving upstream through the valley. In this way, the water savings accumulate, and the extra flow remains in the river downstream through Camp Verde and beyond toward Phoenix. Just over 40 miles of the stretch below Camp Verde is officially designated a U.S. Wild and Scenic river, one of the most beautiful and culturally significant stretches of river in Arizona.

Perhaps most importantly, no farmer or ditch member has sacrificed anything. “It’s working very well,” said Geminden, the ditch boss, who can operate the automated system from his cell phone. “We are still able to provide the water everyone needs.”

A family farm run by Kevin Hauser and his son Zach is last in line for the ditch’s water. The farm typically uses about half of the Diamond S water to irrigate their laser-leveled fields of alfalfa, vegetables, pump­kins and sweet corn. The Hausers’ satisfaction was a key barometer of the project’s success. “If we’re at the end of the ditch and we’re satisfied, then everyone (on the ditch) should be satisfied,” said the elder Hauser, who, as a young boy, spent many days down by the river. “I’m very happy with the in-stream flow agreement. The river offers a lot to the aesthetics of the valley.”

For Schonek, the success on the Diamond S inspired confidence to continue upgrading other ditches upstream. It has also brought in more funding, both from government sources and from corporations that see value in a secure water supply for the Phoenix area, a healthy river that provides recreational opportunities and demonstrations of good water stewardship. For example, Recreational Equipment, Inc., better known as REI, is seeking to balance the water footprint of a new distribution center it is building in the greater Phoenix area that is certified for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). By investing in projects that restore flow to the Verde and its tributaries – including the conversion of inefficient flood irrigation to more efficient drip sys­tems – REI is not only balancing its footprint, it is supporting outdoor recreational opportunities for its customers, its employees and the gen­eral public.

TNC, the Friends of Verde River Greenway and Change the Course, the national water restoration initiative I helped create, partnered to devise a portfolio of projects that benefited the river and also met REI’s goals, which included volunteer opportunities for its employees. REI is also helping fund a conservation easement on a portion of the Hausers’ farm to protect the river and riparian habitat from the impacts of future development. Altogether some half dozen corporations have partnered with Change the Course on projects to restore flow to the Verde and its tributaries, from ditch system upgrades to the installation of drip irriga­tion on valley farms.

In the summer of 2016, Friends of Verde River Greenway launched another creative mechanism to restore flow to the Verde: a voluntary water exchange. The Verde River exchange connects residents and busi­nesses in the valley willing to temporarily reduce their water use with others wanting to offset the impacts of theirs. In the first pilot, a local family agreed to forgo the irrigation of a small pasture for one year, gen­erating water credits that will partially offset the use of groundwater by Merkin Vineyards and Page Springs Vineyards. (Groundwater sustains base flows in the Verde and its tributaries.) The two vineyards, in turn, will purchase the water credits, providing revenue that can be used to compensate the local family. It remains to be seen how much voluntary action the exchange generates. But it provides a new vehicle for those who want to do their part to sustain healthy rivers in their backyard.

TNC is now scaling up its efforts in the Verde valley with a water fund similar to those it has created in the Rio Grande watershed and in a number of Latin American countries. The idea is to motivate downstream users – including drinking water providers and companies doing business in the Phoenix metropolitan area – to invest in projects in the valley that can improve water security. TNC aims to raise $20 million over the next decade to boost efficiency and upgrade infrastructure in the Verde valley, supporting healthy flows into the future.

Arizona courts have yet to formalize rights to the Verde’s water, and even though the ditch companies are some of the most senior users, the uncertainty is worrisome. But the partnerships in the Verde valley have increased water’s value and created real benefits. They show that smart water use enables productive farming and healthy rivers to exist side by side.

Excerpted from Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity by Sandra Postel. Copyright © 2017 Sandra Postel. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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